ALBANY – Who the mayor of New York City is doesn’t usually matter to people living in Chemung County or the northern reaches of the Adirondacks or the La Salle neighborhood of Niagara Falls.
But in 2014, it might.
Emboldened by the Election Day victory of Democrat Bill de Blasio as the next mayor of New York City, state officials and special interests with left-of-center leanings have already begun to push an agenda they say Albany can no longer ignore.
These progressives say that 2014 is their year and that de Blasio’s liberal-tilting agenda for New York City is one that should spread to the rest of the state. The first Democratic mayor elected in New York City since David N. Dinkins in 1989, de Blasio has already promoted themes of raising taxes on millionaires and creating citywide prekindergarten classes and mandatory after-school programs for middle schoolers.
But liberal lawmakers are adding to that agenda, and have begun new efforts to push everything from additional gun-control measures to decriminalization of marijuana to college aid for children of undocumented immigrants to public financing of political campaigns.
It is a looming battle that has some allies of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo worried that, in an election year, he could be in for a nasty fight with the liberal base of his own party, especially if de Blasio digs in his heels on a number of issues.
While Cuomo has supported many initiatives pushed by the left, some matters – such as raising taxes – represent an election year minefield for the governor.
A test for State Senate
It is a situation that also will pose a test for the State Senate, where Republicans are facing their own re-election bids next year in an attempt to hold on to their tenuous and partial control of the 63-member chamber.
Senate co-leader Jeffrey D. Klein, a Bronx Democrat whose independent caucus helps keep the GOP in partial command of the Senate, has already signaled his eagerness to help de Blasio – over Cuomo’s objections – get a tax increase on wealthy people approved in 2014.
“It has emboldened people,” Assemblyman Karim Camara said of de Blasio’s impact on left-leaning causes.
The Brooklyn Democrat is chairman of the State Legislature’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus, a politically potent group within the state Democratic Party.
He believes that de Blasio’s election showed voters’ support for “progressive message” regarding an agenda for education, economic development and taxation.
“It let leaders know we are also responsive to this message,” Camara said.
Camara’s caucus met last week to begin promoting a multi-item agenda for the 2014 session, including Tuition Assistance Program money for children of undocumented immigrants, mandatory universal prekindergarten, a dramatic increase in aid to public schools, and increased participation in state contracts by minority- and women-owned businesses.
The caucus also wants to decriminalize marijuana possession and end the state’s automatic treatment of anyone older than 16 as an adult in criminal matters by raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18.
Others are joining in, too. A number of groups representing unions, religious and left-leaning organizations last week proposed a five-point tax-restructuring package, including higher taxes on wealthy residents, an end to many corporate tax breaks, and reducing the growing tax-credit programs that certain industries – such as film companies – get for doing business in New York.
Also last week, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a union-backed group, called on Cuomo and lawmakers to provide a $1.9 billion increase in state aid to public schools as a way to start making up for cuts to programs and teacher layoffs that districts have endured in the last several years.
The group also echoed support for de Blasio’s plan to raise taxes on wealthy New York City residents to pay for pre-K and after-school programs for middle school students – a plan some want extended statewide.
The timing of all this is twofold: to try to ride de Blasio’s wave soon after his election with 73.3 percent of the vote and to make their case while Cuomo is putting together his 2014 budget proposal and State of the State address.
While some of these same lawmakers and groups have made these pleas before, they believe that de Blasio’s landslide victory provides them with new vigor to make their case with state lawmakers and Cuomo in the coming months.
“I think de Blasio’s election represents a potential sea change in New York,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. He said de Blasio’s presence in the high-profile post of New York City mayor will have “huge reverberations” to try to get additional pre-K programs statewide paid for by the wealthy.
Conservatives are listening closely to the increasing rhetorical waves since Election Day by liberal lawmakers and special-interest groups. Michael R. Long, chairman of the state Conservative Party, said that one of his worries is that “my friends and the people we endorse, conservative Republicans, would misread what happened in New York City and get nervous and start shifting to the left.”
“That would be a very sad day and a big mistake,” Long added.
As longtime leader of the small but influential party, Long dismisses any notion that de Blasio’s election, which he said came amid extremely low voter turnout, should have any sort of impact on the policy doings in Albany. He noted that any big victory for Democrats in New York City was countered by big wins on Election Day by conservative Republicans from Erie and Chautauqua counties to Westchester and Rockland counties north of New York City and Nassau County on Long Island.
Although de Blasio’s victory signaled a shift to the left in the city, Long said, “I don’t see that taken hold statewide.”
Moreover, he believes that Cuomo, who is wooing more conservative upstate counties that rejected him in 2010, would be taking a risk if he goes too far left.
“I don’t see Andrew Cuomo taking that direction, either, when he’s facing an election coming up,” Long added.
Cuomo dismisses the many New York City media reports that he and de Blasio are going to be facing major strains in the coming session.
“I know him truly, personally, intimately. I knew him when his kids were born. I know how he thinks. I know what he believes. He’s a great political talent, and I’m excited about the relationship,” Cuomo said during a meeting of The Buffalo News Editorial Board last week.
The governor suggested that this influence could be counterbalanced by the politics of other parts of the state.
“There’s no question that New York City is overwhelmingly Democratic; you have some of the most liberal people in the nation living in New York City,” Cuomo said. “You look at our Legislature, and one of the things that makes it fascinating is the political diversity of this state. You have some of the most liberal districts in the country and some of the most conservative districts in the country.”
Upstate Republican lawmakers, who have already seen gun control, gay marriage and New York’s version of “Obamacare” anger conservative constituents, say liberal lawmakers are in for a surprise if they think 2014 is going to be a policy cakewalk. And they are clearly looking to Cuomo, who needs more upstate voters this time to go for him if he is to bolster his 2010 showing, to act as a shield.
‘Should resonate a lot’
“I think the governor has made it very clear we’re looking to cut taxes. Liberals tend to want to raise taxes and spending. I don’t think there is a feeling in the Senate or executive to want to do that,” said State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane.
But Camara, the head of the black and Latino caucus, said his group’s message can appeal to upstate urban and rural areas as well as to downstate. He acknowledged that the caucus is going to push the governor and the Senate to address major and likely controversial issues they otherwise would ignore in an election year. But he said his group’s policy ideas will help programs such as education and economic development across New York.
“I think it should resonate a lot,” Camara said of de Blasio’s agenda on social issues.
“I always tell people in New York City that we talk about poverty, but we really haven’t seen poverty until we visit some of the upstate counties that are really struggling,” he said, adding that he plans to work on a report to outline the Top 10 localities hardest-hit economically and work with lawmakers from those areas on job creation and other efforts.
“It’s not just a New York City idea. It’s not just a liberal-progressive idea,” he said. “It’s about making the state a better place for everyone.”